Discourses on GMing Series 1 Post 3
Time to actually get to the heart of the matter. Well, chapter 1. But chapter 1 is the heart of the matter in my opinion. Let me tell you why…
Brian Jamison’s Only Immutable Law of Gamemastering
“The more the Gamemaster plots, the less the players will follow the plot.”
I think this phrase is the foundational wisdom of Jamison’s system for preparing and running RPGs. He’s right, I think, when he says “Traditionally … the Gamemaster labors for hours … working out plot and story, then springs the pre-written adventure on the team. The Gamemaster then hopes the players will enjoy the adventure and has given himself little opportunity to change things if they don’t.” I see this on RPG forums all the time. Somebody posts asking for help with a plot point, but the issue is that their plots assume the players will behave a certain way. They are acting like a writer – who has total control – not a game designer, who doesn’t.
Once I read a post on reddit where someone was asking for help with their first session. It was a GURPS game where the PCs would be modern university students thrown back in time during a visit to the large hadron collider. That’s a cool enough premise, right? But the entire thing was prepared completely backwards: first the PCs will do this, then the NPCs will talk to each other, then the PCs will be captured, then they will be rescued by more NPCs… it was classic “GMing as writing” that assumed the players would stick to the script they were (not) given.
For all of his idiosyncrasies from the introduction (and more yet to come), Jamison’s entire method is fundamentally based on this one gem of a paragraph:
Plotting or scripting outcomes are totally against the spirit of roleplaying! Playing an already-written story is boring for the players because they won’t have any input, and boring for the GM because the story is already written. In fact, any game that has a predetermined outcome isn’t a game. GMs sometimes write a story in advance because that’s what they want to do. These folks should write a book/play/movie and get it published or produced. Likewise, if the players want to act in a scripted environment, they’d probably have more fun with a theater troupe.
Truer words have never been written about roleplaying games. Games have players, and players make decisions. If your game doesn’t have players making decisions then pretty much it’s not a game.
There are two elements from this idea that make Jamison’s preparation method so lean. First, he only tells you to prepare things you probably won’t be good at improvising on the spot. Second, he only tells you to prepare things that will be useful in a game environment where you cannot be 100% sure that your prepared material will be useful in a given instance. The entire method is about “preparing to improvise,” as I have come to call it. You can’t have a game without improvising – games need decisions to be made on the spot. But you can’t make good decisions on the spot unless you’re prepared. So you need to prepare to improvise.
The Jamison Order
Much like the Machete Order re-arranges the Star Wars movie viewing sequence, Jamison attempts to re-arrange the sequence of launching a new roleplaying campaign to be more optimal. He claims the traditional order (which I agree is often what happens) is:
- GM chooses game system
- GM readies the adventure (buys/reads/prepares it)
- Characters are created
- Start playing
Now, this method has a few merits online that Jamison doesn’t consider because of the meat-space limitations of his scope. Online it’s very easy to start a pick up game, most commonly by somebody willing to GM (due to supply and demand). There are also great tools for sorting through games to join in places like Roll20 so that you’ll basically get the game you want. Simply because of the immense scale of the online RPG campaign market it’s actually quite practical to present a game “take it or leave it.” This is also how convention games operate – there are so many people (and so little time) you can afford to advertise a pre-prepared game and have it work.
However, especially at an in-person game, I think Jamison’s order makes a lot of sense:
- GM chooses the players
- Everyone agrees on a setting
- GM chooses game system
- Characters are co-created
- Adventure skeleton is written
- Start playing
In teaching there is a lot of hubbub about “student-centered” education – teaching students things they will believe are relevant and interesting. Jamison here presents a sort of “player-centered campaign design” – pick some people you like first, then construct everything around the group’s shared preferences. It’s pretty hard to argue with the “give ’em what they want!” approach. What’s the alternative? Give ’em what they don’t want? Seems impractical. At least students legally have to be there – players have no such compulsion to stick around a game not meeting their preferences.
We’re on to chapter 2: Choosing Players and the Game System.